Directed by So Yong Kim. Starring Hee-yeon Kim, Mi-hyang Kim, Song-hee Kim, Soo-ah Lee. (2008, NR, 89 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 12, 2009
Kim, the Korean-born and American-bred director of In Between Days, shows with her follow-up film, Treeless Mountain, that she is an astute observer of young people. The youngsters’ ages in this new film drop from teenagers to post-toddlers, but Kim’s power to wordlessly explicate the fears and joys of their circumscribed lives remains keen. Treeless Mountain’s 7-year-old Jin (Hee-yeon Kim) and her younger sister, Bin (Song-hee Kim), are hardly articulate protagonists. Their limited ability to understand, much less verbalize, their emotions requires the movie to rely on the pair’s beautifully expressive faces to convey their experiences. Were they less facially expressive, this movie’s minimalist narrative style might feel thoroughly parched. Films that feature children as their primary protagonists always run the risk of becoming overly sentimental and forcibly cute. Kim’s austere shooting style and scarcity of narrative accoutrements, however, provide a nice counterbalance to the sweetness of her young stars. Treeless Mountain calls to mind other fine movies, such as Nobody Knows and Ponette, that employ children as their primary subjects and tell the stories from their distinct points of view. Jin and Bin’s harried mother (Lee) takes the girls at the start of the movie to live with her sister-in-law, Big Aunt (Mi-hyang Kim), while she goes off to look for her estranged husband. The girls are confused and frightened, and Big Aunt’s alcoholism and neglectful attitude toward the girls does little to help ease their anxiety. Still, they play in the neighborhood and count the coins in their piggy bank (their mother promised she would return when the pig is full), but a constant look of worry clouds their demeanor. Eventually, Big Aunt shuffles the kids off to their grandparents’ home in the country. Though their fears are not quelled, their adaptive skills become dominant. The problem with this American indie filmed in Korea is that, despite the captivating faces and sad predicament of these little girls, nothing much happens. The entire story may be written on the faces of these two, but it’s a very tiny canvas and bereft of understanding.